How we Broadcast our first Live Webcast

Posted by on Mar 16, 2009 in Guides & Tutorials | 5 comments

Last Friday we ventured into somewhat unfamiliar territory, having agreed to produce and direct a Live, two hour fly-on-the-wall documentary from one of London’s finest restaurants.

The idea was to film a special ‘tasting’ event for top London food critics and broadcast it to people around the world via the web. This is the story of how we did it, and what it might mean for WorldTV in future…

The focus of the event was Oysters and Champagne, something we knew very little about. Fortunately we had some of the best people (and palettes) in the business to enlighten and educate us. Fred Sirieix is General Manager of Galvin at Windows, a restaurant with arguably the most impressive view of London, and it was his idea to take what is normally a behind-closed-doors event and open it up to the public. It was the first time in the industry that a ‘showcase’, as such events are called, had ever been live webcast, and this inspired idea resulted in a lot of interest and chatter within the restaurant world. It promised to be a groundbreaking event and a lot of fun.

From day one we knew that a completely unscripted production was needed. This wasn’t the Oscars and there simply wasn’t the budget, desire or time to plan the content side in advance. Instead we decided that a roving handheld camera with a professional presenter to explain everything would make the most sense. We enlisted the help of Nigel Barden, BBC Food and Drinks presenter (pictured at top), and he agreed to host the webcast.

A two hour live broadcast feels like five hours when you’re doing it and is a lot of time to fill. We decided to add a second camera which would capture a static wide angle view of the seating area (aka ‘the webcam’) that we would switch to when needed, and this would take the pressure off shooting solidly on a handheld camera for two hours. This way we could switch to the ‘webcam’ if we ever got weary, or the presenter or camera person or circumstances ran out of creative steam. We didn’t expect people to watch for the whole two hours but dip in and out over time.

With so many stakeholders and partners involved in the event (suppliers, bloggers, restaurant reviewers, journalists, twitterers), and several partners wanting to stream the event on their own websites, we needed a streaming solution that would allow for an embeddable player on 3rd party sites, be free or low cost, and fast.

A homegrown solution was possible but this would have meant taking developers off other important WorldTV work. Several live streaming services were considered (Mogulus, Justin.tv, Ustream.tv), but in the end we chose Ustream because we know it to be reliable, feature rich and easy-to-use. The staff also run a tight ship and are quick and efficient in responding – a key factor when organizing something at short notice. Ustream’s ability to get involved with the promotion of the event through editorial coverage was an added factor and the event ended up being promoted prominently on the Ustream homepage (pictured left).

We ran tests of the embedded player and the more advanced features of Ustream’s broadcast console – their browser based web application for uplinking live video.

We set up a page at worldtv.com/live where we embedded the Ustream player allowing us to go live to that page at any time. Simultaneously we sent the embed code to partner websites so they could start running their own tests. Finally we tested the broadcast console with a variety of different video sources connected to our uplink computer – an Apple MacPro tower.

A common problem for people doing live video is how to get video into their computer. Readers of our Founder’s blog will know he likes the Blackmagic Intensity HDMI card ($249) which slots into Windows or Mac computers and lets you pull in uncompressed, high definition video from any consumer video camera with an HDMI connection. Ustream’s broadcast console is able to access this video source and uplink it for broadcast.

Another option we tested was the excellent Canopus ADVC-55 analog-to-digital video converter box ($150). This plugs into a firewire port on your computer and allows you to connect any analogue video source using an S-Video or Composite (RCA/phono) connection.

Both options worked well with Ustream in testing and the decision for which one to use was ultimately determined by the camera setup. In actual fact, we ended up using both as we’ll explain.

Incidentally the Canopus box smokes any ‘TV / Video input device’ you might find at a big box computer store in terms of quality. If you’re thinking of getting an external video capture or input device and are considering the likes of Hauppage, Pinnacle, Diamond etc take a very close look at the Canopus products. They are made by the same people who make top end professional broadcast equipment (Grass Valley) and the quality shows through. If you have HDMI or Component video sources look no further than Blackmagic. They too make high end professional broadcast equipment and you get the benefit of all that R&D and systemic commitment to quality.

Knowing that we had two good options for getting video into our uplink computer we began planning the production side in more detail. Top of our planning list was audio…

Its a common misconception that the most important thing in a video production is video. In reality audio is more important because you can cover up bad visuals but nothing will fix bad sound. There’s actually no excuse for bad audio because professional grade microphones start at $110.

A handheld reporters mike was the clear choice and the specific mike we like at WorldTV is a BeyerDynamic M58 ($250 – pictured above) which has excellent shock absorbing features to reduce handling noise. Its long handle is particularly suited for settings where you need to ‘reach’ out to someone in a studio audience, or… across a restaurant table.

We needed a second mike to pick up atmosphere noise and to be ‘the mike that went along with the webcam’. We rented-in an AKG rifle mike for this and mounted it on a stand aimed at the diners.

Both microphones were fed into an audio mixer and from there into the computer. We kept the audio separate from the video to keep things more flexible. The Ustream broadcast console allows you to specify a separate audio and video source for uplinking.

A wireless microphone kit was used to adapt the handheld mike into a radio mike. We used two receivers – one ‘desktop’ style receiver (which went into the audio mixer) and a ‘beltpack’ receiver for the main handheld camera. The beltpack receiver was clipped onto the side of the camera (pictured right) and was there to allow the camera footage to be recorded in high quality onto the camera itself – with sound intact.

The camera we used was a Sony SR1 high definition camcorder. A Beachtek box was mounted to the underside of the camera to take audio from the beltpack receiver and feed into the camera. A LitePanel Micro was mounted on top of the camera as shown. This is an LED based light.

With the ‘acquisition’ gear worked out there were two challenges remaining. How to switch between the two cameras and how to light everything.

We considered two approaches to the switching. The first was a ‘hardware’ based vision mixer which would sit between the two cameras and the computer.  The second was a software based solution where both cameras feed into the computer and are then mixed in software.

We opted for the software option and did all the switching for the event using the excellent and free CamTwist for Mac. This is the same software that Chris Pirillo uses for his 24/7 live broadcast and while it’s not the most user friendly software written, it is extremely feature rich and lets you add text, graphics and all kinds of interesting effects. We used it to switch between the two cameras and add a WorldTV logo in the corner.

We ran our Sony handheld camera into the computer via a long HDMI cable. The ‘webcam’ was an SD Canon camcorder and was fed into the Canopus box via a composite video cable. At the last minute we added a 3rd ‘waitercam’ which was a tiny Swann wireless ‘spycam’ whose receiver was fed into the Canopus box via a hardware switch (an RCA switcher). We were able to switch back and forth between the ‘webcam’ and ‘waitercam’ using this switch, providing we didn’t do it while either camera was actually live. A physical switch is not suitable for genuinely live switching.

Regarding the lighting for the event we had a major challenge. The dining area was surrounded on three sides by windows on what turned out to be an extremely sunny day and with the sun coming straight at us. Fortunately we rented a set of ‘Redheads’ (not an Irish female band) but 3 large professional film lights running at 800w each. We used all of them with ‘daylight’ gels to attempt to fill in light from the one side of the dining area that did not have windows. It’s never easy fighting the sun (!) but 2,400 watts and some blinds helps a little.

On the day we got down to the restaurant early. By 3pm everything was setup and everyone in place. Our Founder Alx who has worked in the past as a cameraman operated the main camera and did Directorial duties. Nigel Barden from the BBC as mentioned did the presenting.  Nick Tsinonis was on switching and Charlotte Chahrvin was on ‘waitercam’.

The event went amazingly smooth all things considered. A waiter did manage to trip a router cable which evaded being gaffa taped behind the bar, but that was about it. The broadcast was watched by hundreds of restaurant people around the world and the client was very happy.

We’re now planning to do more live events with a view to developing some live broadcasting features for our WorldTV users and which is the most often requested feature. We’ve got a wealth of real world experience to feed back into our development plans and some fascinating ideas that we’re working on. You will of course hear all about them right here.

If you would like us to webcast your upcoming event, drop us a line.

5 Comments

  1. You know what would be cool, being able to move videos between channels (ones you set up) so you can kinda pass them around your channels….THANKS, you guys are doing awesome work here. Peace, Chaz USA

  2. Thank you for sharing your experience! I’m doing research for a similar setup, so this article was extremely helpful… didn’t know about the canopus box before reading. Thanks again!

  3. Thanks for sharing the information, I find it really useful. Now i’m reading your website from my room

  4. um grande webcast

  5. It is nice that you posted about this. I found you on google and I had been looking for information about this. Nice site, thanks for the info. I will come back to check for new updates

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